Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: Sleepaway Camp (1983)
[YEAH, I’M SPOILING THE BEST PART… ‘CAUSE WHAT ELSE IS THERE IN THIS ONE?]
Okay, being totally honest—I had only seen the very last scene from this film before watching the whole thing a few nights ago. I’d stumbled onto it in some list of shocking horror moments or something and wasn’t worried about it being spoiled, so I watched it. That scene stuck with me, and also made me (mistakenly!) assume this was a disturbing, dark film throughout. Hahahaha… No. Not at all. That’s not to say it’s bad… but I think the backwards way I experienced it actually says a lot about this film and its legend, if you can call it that. This is more like a Troma film for the most part with a few decent kills and one very effective, weird scene.
So there’s a father with his young son and daughter and they’re sailing in a little boat on a lake. This pleasant scene intercuts back and forth with some teenagers (said like it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, that’s how awful those young, not-yet-in-their-20s hoo-lee-ganns are…) in a speedboat, another of their ranks trailing behind on water skis. The more experienced speedboat driver lets the never-done-it-before passenger drive. As a joke, the kids with their father on the sailboat capsize it for funsies and oh how they laugh… until both idiots in the speedboat decide to look back at their water skiing friend (the only one of the three who sees that they’re barreling toward the father and his children). So yeah, that goes poorly.
The child who surv—oh wait, I’ll do it like the movie itself does:
The daughter, Angela, from the beginning is shown with her cousin Ricky and her aunt. If you’ve seen this one, you’ll get what I’m going for here. If you haven’t seen it, you better have a high spoiler tolerance, because there is exactly one scene that this film is still known for. Without it, this one would have been mostly forgotten, I think. So I’m being a little cheeky, I think it’s called. Seeing the film the way I did—the best part having been spoiled by my own casual careless curiosity—ruined any real surprise the whole setup had. It also made me laugh at how rear-loaded this one is, horror-wise.
I guess I just have to accept that I’m going to always have some review spillover into my summary. But I’m not done yet! Haven’t even set up the bulk of the movie.
Right, so—later, Angela and Ricky are all grown up. Well, they’ve become teenagers and they have to go to summer camp at a lake. They arrive with the rest of the campers.
I knew this was going to be a Troma level affair from two scenes in these first minutes after the tragic intro. I love Troma, for the record, but you know what I mean, dammit. The actor playing the aunt in the first scene with Angela and Ricky plays it as either batshit crazy or a drama teacher on too many pills and one-too-many whip-its.
The second thing that hipped me to it was the campers arriving. The camp cook and his crew watch them arrive… and the cook is saying all sorts of obvious shit about fucking underage girls. He even like licks his lips or something. I can’t remember clearly ‘cause I was laughing pretty hard from the shit he’d already said. This was like report-to-the-authorities level obvious shit he said. It would have only been a little less subtle for him to start gently masturbating himself over his grease-spotted trousers while he watched young’ns show up for a fun summer.
Big Surprise!—that nasty, obviously-a-molester-type cook tries to molest Angela, first chance he gets. Ricky interrupts and they peace out. Later, the cook is the First One To Get It and he’s horribly burned by his own enormous cooking pot when someone who isn’t clearly shown forces him into a precarious position. He isn’t shown dying, but he’s in agony and taken to the hospital. They treat it as an accident and camp goes on.
And that’s basically the formula going forward. Teen hijinks and hazing, and a barely-shown person causing people to die or directly killing them. Oh and the grumpy old cigar chomping guy who runs the camp suspects one of the campers of being the killer and gets more and more amped as the movie goes on. That is, when he’s not planning a lovely dinner with a barely-older-than-the-campers camp counselor. She explains to the audience through a quick dialogue exposition that he’s been begging her for it forever and immediately after, finally inexplicably accepts his offer. This guy is equal parts cranky and creepy—and also kinda reminded me of Lloyd Kaufman doing an extended bit, even though it sadly wasn’t.
Then there’s the very last scene. Which is a doozy…
I usually don’t have much of an issue throwing spoilers out there for the films I review, mostly because I feel without specifics it’s hard to really get at why I felt the way I did. Also, I give some form of playful/snarky warning at the very top so BOOFUCKINGHOO if you ignore that silly but true statement.
With this movie, it’s different. Honestly, there are a handful of good, slasher-y kills and enough setup for them based on aforementioned hazing and such that they’re satisfying for what they are. Some are implied and brutal. The rest of the movie is either cheesy or hammy in varying ways that make it unclear if it was on purpose or a product of it being a first time feature by a film student going for a masters. Awkward, amateurish things are all over this, but they generally make it more fun to watch. That’s why I slapped the Troma-adjacent tag on it. It’s also probably a little that way because most of the actors playing teenagers are actual teenagers, for once.
The reason I’m a little more hesitant to spoil this one callously is how much it depends on its ending.
Okay, how about this…
[IF YOU WANT TO WATCH THIS MOVIE AS IT WAS INTENDED, DO NOT READ THE CHUNK UNDER THIS]
[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[I MEAN IT………………………………………………………………………………………]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]
If you’re reading this, you either don’t give a shit about it being spoiled or you’ve probably seen it and just want to see how much of an asshole I’m gonna be about it. I guess you could also be here for my silly pics and captions. Whatever it is, thanks. Peachy. Let’s continue…
This whole film exists as a setup for the last scene. Really, the last few shots. Since you’ve seen the spoilers, I’ll be more blatant. Every scene after the intro has had some level of misdirection in it. If I hadn’t already seen the end before watching the rest, I might’ve missed the more subtle clues. Why won’t Angela shower with the other girls when they do? Things like that.
The last scene is incredibly effective. That’s why I expected a much darker, more serious movie to build up to it. Nope. It’s a sometimes silly, sometimes just awkward camp movie that’s also a slasher movie with some okay kills… that ends with a truly nightmarish scene.
A boy who’s been trying to get close to Angela the whole movie—and the main bully girl makes out with to make Angela jealous—accepts an offer to meet Angela on the lakeshore at night. The killer’s been out and about too so a couple of the older counselors are out looking for stragglers or something.
They come across Angela and the boy on the lakeshore and it looks like he’s lying with his back on her lap and she playing with his hair and humming. Nope!
She gets up, blood all over her chest and she’s naked. She’s decapitated the boy with a hunting knife and she has a penis. There’s a quick flashback (just before the reveal) about the kooky aunt from the beginning deciding to raise the son who survived the boating accident, Peter, as her new little girl and his sister, Angela. She says something about it being because she already has a boy or something hammy. So in this scene, we also get the answer to why the actor is portraying the aunt character in such an off-kilter way—she just cray.
Then it’s back to the present, and Angela gets this huge, angled snarly smile and makes animalistic noises while glaring at the counselors (and the camera). This mixed with the music choice and the fact that it freeze-frames on this intensely strange glare moment and keys a weird color treatment as the credits role just makes the entire last moments of this film genuinely disturbing and utterly bizarre.
This scene makes the entire film. It’s a mediocre-to-decent slasher film… with an incredible ending that transcends its setup.
It would be negligent of me to avoid addressing a big part of why this scene disturbs some viewers and has given the movie the rep it seems to have. I’m loath to describe this as anything resembling a representation of realistic transgender identity or anything in that realm. But as presented, it is a young boy forced to live as a girl by his disturbed aunt. And the film is about this young person eventually being capable of murdering many people in a short period, so the character is obviously deeply disturbed. I came across an article while researching this that was about how ‘transmisogynistic’ this film is (interesting article; search the film title and that word and you’ll get there). While I can’t disagree, I don’t feel that was intentional. I get that it doesn’t have to be intentional and in some ways it doesn’t matter if it is… but this film feels more like a twist the likes of Psycho’s. It was so unusual at the time of both films to varying levels to have something like ‘cross-dressing’ or a (forced) transgender identity that it felt like shorthand for ‘disturbed’. So it is possible this film would be extra disturbing to someone sensitive to those issues, but for reasons other than entertainment-leaning horror. The film leans on this disturbed boy-turned-girl setup heavily, and that’s up to others to discuss more eloquently and from a place of more nuanced and educated thoughts than I can present.
This film could be and has been retroactively deemed offensive, as many other things have been and can be. On the other hand, ‘problematic’ issues it has could be hand-waived away on the time period and traditions of horror using shorthand sometimes to make sure the audience gets to that disturbed place.
This is where I’m actually thankful I saw that scene before ever seeing the rest of the movie.
The clip I saw started with the counselors walking up. I think it even skipped the illusion of Angela stroking the boy’s hair. Pretty much just Angela standing up, knife and head in hand. The character was naked and bloody, making strange animal sounds and with a perverse, intense stare. One of the counselors did say the “How can that be? She’s boy!” line—which is just a terrible, unneeded line all around—but all I’d seen of this character is what’s presented in the most horrific part. Naked, bloody, weird stare, animal noises. The character happened to have a penis, but I had no frame of reference for that and just took in what was there.
Because of this, I personally feel like the scene succeeds at being truly horrific and disturbing on its own merits. I get that the filmmaker wanted and fully intended it to be a shock to the audience based on that character being presented one way the whole film up to that point, then shown it wasn’t the case and that of course all that bundled up would imply the person was disturbed by this somehow enough to go completely stark raving mad and kill many people. I just feel the scene has kept the film legendary because the way it’s done transcends its creator’s intent and is effective in a really visceral, dark way—in spite of the cheap and kind of lazy shorthand tropes it was based on.
Okay, since my opinion of this film hinges so much on the part that’s also the biggest spoiler, if you skipped to here you must really like my silly images or something.
WHAT I LIKED:
- The Last Scene
- Most of the kills are creative and well done
- Felissa Rose does a great job as Angela all around
- Fun schlockiness
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
- So schlocky it’s hard to take seriously when the genuinely messed up things happen
- Aunt character is like a parody of a bad actor trying to portray a bad actor playing a mentally ill person… It feels like it’s supposed to be unsettling, but it mostly just made me laugh. Then when you find out it’s actually one of the more serious parts by implication, it hits you how truly bad the performance is. Possibly just the character, but the actor didn’t do the character any favors
- Molester Cook would’ve been investigated long before trying to molest Angela, if he was so comfortable leching out in front of others.
Like I’ve said, the ending really makes this film worth watching. There are some other good scenes, but mostly that ending. So, That Ending™ adds like a full 2 points.
I’ll give Sleepaway Camp………………………………6/10.
PATRICK LOVELAND writes screenplays, novels, and short stories. By day, he works at a state college in Southern California, where he lives with his wife, young daughter, and a cat so black he seems to absorb light. Patrick’s stories have appeared in anthologies and periodicals published by April Moon Books, Shadow Work Publishing, EyeCue Productions, Bold Venture Press, Sirens Call Publications, Indie Authors Press, PHANTAXIS, and the award-winning Crime Factory zine. Patrick’s first novel, A TEAR IN THE VEIL, was published in June of 2017 by April Moon Books.
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